Rfotofolio is pleased to share our interview with photographer Mark Nelson.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up on a large family farm in Central Illinois. We had 2,000 acres of corn and beans and raised registered Black Angus cattle. I look back on my childhood as extremely rich and wholesome. It was one of those communities where any farmer who experienced a disaster or injury could count on the neighbors to jump in and get the work done.
By the age ten, it was not unusual for me to work a 14–hour day driving a tractor. This was the norm in the community where we lived—if you grew up on a family farm, you were an important part of it and you carried your weight. You had real world responsibilities. You felt valuable. However, as an adult, I’ve never had the desire to grow a vegetable garden.
I grew up in an area that was often a monochrome world in the fall and winter—50 shades of brown! This would affect my way of seeing and my photography in the future.
I attended the University of Illinois and got a BS in Psychology then a Master’s of Social Work with an emphasis on Family Therapy. My first job was in the mental health field. I was a Family Therapist and subsequently spent over 25 years as Executive Director of an outpatient mental health clinic specializing in family treatment. I loved participating in the development of the powerful programs we created for families, children and adolescents. I also learned to write complex computer programs for accounting and client record management and billing.
I have two wonderful children. My daughter has her Doctorate in Computer Engineering and my son owns a farm in Jamaica that produces herbal teas.
I had always wanted to have two careers in my lifetime that were very different and I wanted one of them to be in the area of fine arts. Art runs in my family—my father was a good travel and family photographer with his Argus C3 “Brick”, my mother was a good artist (she taught me to sketch with a pencil at an early age—another monochrome influence), and my sister, Linda Nelson Stocks, was extremely successful with her oil paintings. Google her.
By the time I turned 50, I felt it was time to change careers. I gave the governing board of the not-for-profit mental health clinic I was running 2 years notice that I was leaving. I did this for two reasons. This gave them time to find my replacement and me time to plan and prepare for my next career—it also meant I had to do it!
I prepared a business plan, a budget for any equipment I needed, and set aside enough cash to live on for a year with no income. I knew I could not survive on print sales, especially in the beginning, so I did a skills inventory and came up with 12 skills I could do related to photography, art, and computers. These skills would provide enough income that I could work 3 days a week for other people and 4 days a week on my own photography. As it turned out, I met my goals in 6 months.
How did you get started in photography?
I started in photography at the age of 10 when my parents gave me a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera for Christmas. I ran outside and photographed the results of the ice storm that had occurred the night before. It was thrilling to think I was capturing this winter fairyland.
I feel I have come a long way since that ice storm. Here are some personal photography milestones that I consider important for me:
The point in time when I realized I had developed my personal, signature look for my images.
The point in time when I knew I could render any image with any tonal range and values I desired. I then tore up my entire portfolio and reprinted it because I knew my skill level was so much higher and the prints would have a richness that would be far superior to my previous work. This gave me a tremendous feeling of empowerment!
The point in time when I realized that my work could be divided into two categories:
The landscape work that is an external scene that I stumble upon and photograph.
The images that are a product of my own imagination. These images haunt me until I make them. These are perhaps my favorite images, since they are the ones I feel that I truly created. They are usually figure studies or still lifes.
The point in time I realized how much pleasure my best images and prints gave me. I love looking at them. They have a staying power with me. They are often simple and Zen–like. They bring me peace. They evoke a very strong feeling even after viewing hundreds of times—they can bring tears to my eyes.
I print entirely with digital negatives. The two alternative processes I use are Platinum/Palladium and Photopolymer Gravure. These two processes give me a very broad palette for my images and they are two of the most beautiful processes ever developed.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I am totally self–taught. I’ve never taken a course or workshop. I read a lot and I have received a wealth of information from fellow photographer/friends.
Did you have a mentor?
Not really, however I have had the good fortune to have a number of friends with whom I am regularly in touch and we share information and mentor each other: Sam Wang, Sandy King, Christina Anderson, Dick Arentz, Jerry Johnson, Bruce Starrenburg, Paul Taylor, Brigitte Carnochan, and Beth Moon.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
Quite a few, here goes!: Irving Penn, Henri Cartier–Bresson, Helmut Newton, Sally Mann, Annie Leibovitz, Eugene Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Yousuf Karsh, Walker Evans, Albert Watson, Imogen Cunningham, Clarence Hudson White, Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange, Michael Kenna, Robert & Shana Park Harrison, Lucien Clergue, Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Muybridge, James Nachtway, Man Ray, František Drtikol, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Edward S. Curtis, and Rudolph Koppitz.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed, who would it be?
I think I would want to spend time with Wynn Bullock. I love so many of his images. I also tend to photograph similar subject matter. I find Bullock’s work so peaceful to look at and it has visual staying power.
What hangs on your own walls?
Gerardo Suter, Dick Arentz, Sandy King, Sam Wang, Beth Moon, Brigitte Carnochan, Josephine Sacabo, Jerry Johnson, Christina Anderson, Sally Mann, Kenro Izu, George Wimberly, Dan Burkholder, Loran Mearse, Edward Weston, Carl Weese, Shelby Lee Adams, Bruce Starrenburg and lots of my own Platinum/Palladium and Photogravure prints.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time and why?
I think it is important to see lots of work by other photographers. I especially enjoy viewing vintage prints in museums and in galleries. There are many great prints, but one thing I found in common among the many prints I admired was the tonal range. The characteristic that made many of these prints so appealing to me was that the specular highlights usually contained much more print tone than you would see in many contemporary monochrome prints. The specular highlights were not “paper white.” This caused me to explore new methods of printmaking that moved the “black and white points” of the final print in lossless analogue techniques rather than just adjusting the output sliders in Photoshop. This caused me to develop a whole new series of workflows that retained much more of the original tones of the image and thus produced much more tonally rich prints.
I should also mention images of nudes by Lucien Clergue, Albert Watson, Rudolf Koppitz and František Drtikol.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I would probably have to say it would be one of the images I shot of the Grand Canyon. In the early years after I switched my career path to photography I took 3 long trips through the American West to California and back, each traveling a Northern route and a Southern route, making a large circle on the map. In some ways I was retracing some family vacations my family took when I was a kid. I learned two things from shooting the Western Landscape.
It was not my strongest work. I loved looking at it and was really better off just looking and enjoying than photographing it. I was from the Midwest and the intimate Midwestern Landscapes were much more to my liking. I also preferred photographing nudes, flowers, trees, and still lifes.
When you are pointing your camera at the Grand Canyon, always take time to look over your shoulder. There is probably a better photograph there that no one has ever taken and you are less likely to break an ankle falling into one of the many tripod holes that were left by those who preceded you.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
It makes me excited when I see the potential for a beautiful print in an image that I have taken. Then I really enjoy planning the workflow that will produce the print I pre–visualize from the image capture. This process is so fulfilling because choosing the correct workflow will maximize the tonalities in the final print. For example, rendering a print of a white ceramic pitcher so that the print tone transitions are so fluid that it gives you the impression that you are looking at the original object! It always amazes me.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
My father (who has gotten wiser as the years have passed) always told me to buy really good tools and learn to use them well. So I did this when I I transitioned from the Mental Health field to Photography. I bought a Hasselblad Digital Camera, an Imacon (now Hasselblad) Scanner, a 44” Epson printer and a American French Tool etching press from Conrad Engineering. I also use Nikon gear and the Sony A7II and A7rII for my travel camera.
All of these wonderful tools mean very little if the information they capture does not make it through your workflow to the final print. This is often the weakest aspect of people’s work. It is something I solved with my Precision Digital Negatives System when used properly.
How and why did you get into the making of the digital negative?
First I have to recognize Dan Burkholder as the Father of the digital negative. Dan’s development of the first digital negative was a stroke of genius and an incredible gift to photographers wishing to make alt photo prints. Imagine how great the timing was when you consider that in just a few years many people would be shooting with digital cameras and the digital negative would be the only path to an alt print.
My first digital negatives were made with an image setter in the 1990’s. A friend, Bruce Starrenburg, knowing I was playing with scanners and Photoshop version 1, asked if I thought I could make one for him to use with platinum printing. With the help of an Excel spreadsheet and a reflection densitometer borrowed from Bruce, I started crafting imagesetter negatives calibrated for either Silver Gelatin or Platinum/Palladium. It really worked well. As the inkjet photo printers improved, I set about in 2002 to change my workflow to incorporate digital negatives from inkjet printers to contact print silver gelatin and platinum/palladium. I asked Sandy King and Sam Wang to test my results with the various alt processes they had mastered. They gave me very positive feedback and suggested I might want to write a book about it.
I ended up spending two years developing the Precision Digital Negatives System and writing the related book. I hardly worked on anything else. It was an incredibly exciting time with many challenges and many discoveries. I learned to pay close attention to any problem I saw because that problem usually led to a discovery.
I was also very fortunate to have the thumbs up on my work from the late Phil Davis, who read my draft manuscript for accuracy.
Since writing Precision Digital Negatives for Silver & Other Alternative Photographic Processes, I have created for sale:
A very nice 31 step film test tablet
Curve Calculator III, a database that guides you through your calibrations, stores all the information and exports a variety of curves of varied contrast.
The finest Aquatint Screens available for Photopolymer Gravure and Copper Plate Photogravure.
Would you tell us about your workshops?
I currently do two workshops that teach the use of Precision Digital Negatives with Platinum/Palladium and Precision Digital Positives with Photopolymer Gravure.
The workshops provide a great, proven workflow for both these alt processes. The workshops are filled with information that help the photographer understand how digital negatives work with these processes and how the photographer can troubleshoot any problems they have after returning to their studio. The PDN System has built-in problem solving features.
The workshops also teach the basics of what you need to know to make a print:
What is the optimum exposure time?
What is the optimum density needed to match the exposure scale of your process?
What is the Photoshop Curve that will adjust the print tones properly so they match your screen?
How to evaluate and calibrate an aquatint screen.
The PDN System takes all the guesswork out of printmaking. It shows results at each of the three steps of calibration that can easily be visually evaluated. You calibrate once and then just make prints after that.
There is no way of producing “canned curves or adjustments” that are one size fits all. You really must do the steps above to determine how to make digital negatives that will work with all the variables that are personal to your studio and workflow. Everyone’s working environment is different. The good news is that the PDN Calibration Steps take all these variables into account and simplify the process.
The PDN system does not require a user to do any math! There is no more technical knowledge required to use PDN than the basic knowledge every printmaker should be aware of.
It really is like the old parable, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or the photographic world?
I would like people to be more patient with the evolution of their work. You do not become a master printer overnight. It takes making a LOT of prints. It also means focusing on one alternative process at a time to perfect it and get control of it rather than hopping from one alternative process to another. You have to pay your dues. I see work that has lots of flaws in it and people are selling it because it has “character.” “It’s a feature of the process!” they say. No, it’s a feature of bad printmaking. Show me that you can make a flawless print any time you want and THEN if you want to take a belt sander to your negatives and make a print “with character”, that’s fine. I at least know you have mastered the process and can make a truly fine print and know what the hell you are doing.
What’s on the horizon?
I participated in the original testing of the Hahnemühle Platinum Rag Paper. I’ll be doing some additional tests for them on this paper in the next month. I recently finished a small exhibition portfolio for them on this paper. I enjoy testing products. I was the single tester for the Pictorico ULTRA Premium Film before it went into production.
I’m currently working on a new book that will be filled with important new workflows and concepts. These new workflows produce incredible prints.
I have 7,000 photographs from a recent trip to Italy to go through and narrow down to a portfolio to print. I will probably use Photopolymer Gravure to print the portfolio.
I’m in the process of organizing my entire body of work into portfolios.
I’m doing a total makeover of my website for my personal work.
I want to learn a third alt process: Photo Copper Enamel. I want to take some workshops in blacksmithing with my son. I want to continue to do glass work with my daughter.
Thank you Mark for sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about the work of Mark I.Nelson please visit his site at Mark I. Nelson.
To learn more about the Precision Digital Negatives please click on the name.
“Bravo dear Mark, without whom my ‘art life’ wouldn’t exist. Those images are gorgeous.
XXXX”. Josephine Sacabo